As a boy in the Episcopal Church, I loved to say the General Thanksgiving. My knees ached against the hinged kneeling pads we had spent the last hour repeatedly pulling down and then retracting back up against the pew in front of us. Mom had torn the gold foil from around her last Certs somewhere around the Jubilate Deo. The minister had knocked off what seemed like a massive number of collects and prayers, and, with what seemed like a long, collective exhale, we all finally joined him in “humble and hearty thanks.” It was the General Thanksgiving; the service was almost over.
I loved the General Thanksgiving also for lesser, half-conscious reasons. I loved the way my lips worked out “inestimable,” whatever it meant. I loved the sound of “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” (The difference between hypocrisy and charity is effectively expressed in the difference between a short and long “i.”) And each week my forehead seemed pressed against the glass of those long sentences. What view were these phrases and commas affording of God? Twenty years later I would be writing airtight contracts, settlements, and releases with the kind of thoroughness and droning that the Book of Common Prayer (“BCP”) had planted deep in my soul. Lawyers can get to heaven.
What comes of repeating a prayer almost every week for an entire childhood? More may come of it than the child would understand. Life forms around prayers like that, making sense of the words, and the words help make sense of life.
The General Thanksgiving was added to the BCP in 1662, possibly as the result of the Puritans’ push to add more prayers of thanksgiving to the book. According to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), Bishop of Norwich, wrote the prayer and may have based it in part on “a private prayer of Queen Elizabeth that was issued in 1596.” The 1979 BCP artlessly updates the prayer’s language (“inestimable” becomes “immeasurable,” for instance, and “that due sense of all thy mercies” becomes “such an awareness of your mercies”). However, the BCP also retains the original prayer.
The prayer is in two parts: a thanksgiving and a petition. The first part, which includes the first two sentences, summarizes what there is to be thankful for. The first sentence sees God’s gifts to us in terms of his intention: “goodness and loving-kindness.” The second sentence mentions six gifts, but its language focuses on life and redemption.
The prayer’s second half – its final sentence – asks for a greater sense of mercy that would lead to a richer thanksgiving and a religious life.
The prayer’s three sentences may be outlined as follows:
I. We give thee thanks
A. For all thy goodness
B. And loving-kindness
II. We bless thee
A. For this life
3. All other blessings
B. For the life to come
2. Means of grace
3. Hope of glory
III. We beseech the, give us that due sense of all thy mercies
A. That our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful
B. That we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives
1. By giving up ourselves to thy service
2. By walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days
C. Through Jesus Christ our Lord
The General Thanksgiving’s big turn is foreshadowed in the appositive that begins the prayer: “Almighty God, Father of all mercies…” At the hinge of the prayer, where the prayer turns from thanksgiving to its only petition, is the prayer’s only other reference to mercy. Wrapped up in the petition’s nine words may be the most profound thing I know.
As we thank God for a litany of his gifts in this life and the next, we experience something of the joy of gratitude. We now want our thanksgiving to be a well within us, something we may drink from anytime. So we ask God for “that due sense of” – that appropriate awareness of – “all thy mercies.” With it, “our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful.”
We teach our children to say “thank you” so they will be polite and get along in the world. We also hope our training will lead our children to a more grateful and satisfying philosophy of life. But the General Thanksgiving understands that a true heart of thanksgiving doesn’t come through training alone. We have to understand the value and the source of the gifts we are thankful for.
Jesus told a story to his judgmental host who was watching an “unfeignedly thankful” woman convulse at Jesus’ feet:
Two men were in debt to a moneylender: one owed him five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. As they did not have the means to pay he cancelled both debts. Now, which will love him more? (Luke 7:41-42, Revised English Bible)
Simon, the host, gave the right answer. Then Jesus implied that Simon was the debtor in the story who was forgiven less. Simon would not be as thankful as the woman and would not love as much as the woman, because he was not forgiven as much as the woman.
What Jesus didn’t tell Simon was that he was just as big a debtor as the woman he judged. Simon would have to discover that for himself.
What does it take to have “that due sense” of all God’s mercies? We must be willing to take the path Jesus invited Simon to take. Simon must walk a path of self-discovery that would lead him to a much narrower view of himself. It would also lead him to accept a greater gift from his heavenly Father.
In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton describes the process to something like “that due sense” this way:
If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!
A heart of unfeigned thanksgiving is more than manners. It comes from more than religious insight or intuition. For most of us, it is the welcome city at the end of a long road.
According to the prayer, “that due sense” leads to more than a heart of thanksgiving. It leads to the life God intended for us. It leads to the charity and the holiness that Isaiah frequently links and that James joins to describe “true religion.”
Giving up ourselves to God’s service is not possible without this due sense. Walking in holiness is not possible without this due sense. All of our religion and all of our life must be a response to God’s mercy. Until it is, our real work is to walk the hard road we asked for when we prayed the General Thanksgiving.
The General Thanksgiving
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.